Andrei, a Wella-UNICEF training course graduate: “I want to learn and have a bright future”
Eight years – that is how long Andrei, a boy with big inquisitive eyes from Focșani, who is in the care of the State, can continue to rely on the support of the authorities. But only if the young man will attend public education in a full-time program. For the 11th grader who goes to a high school in town, time is not his best friend. He has to make up his mind about his future. An opportunity has already knocked and Andrei wants to reach out and grab it. He has been offered to go to Australia for a year to sharpen his skills as a hairstylist, with the best professionals in the business. The good news came when the young man successfully graduated from the hairdressing/barbering training course held as part of the Wella-UNICEF project in Romania.
A life on the move
At the age of only five, Andrei was taken away by the Romanian State and placed with a foster carer because his biological parents, faced with material and social challenges, were not in a position to give him a decent living, access to education, or the affection every child needs. “My mother works as an apartment building cleaner in Bucharest and my father is jobless, so they were limited in what they could provide for me”, says Andrei.
Andrei spent the following eight years with a foster family, in a village located in the County of Vrancea. But this arrangement also failed to offer Andrei the support he needed. Whilst he had a home and a warm meal within a normal family, the people taking care of him did not support his dream of going to a fine arts high school. The foster family believed that focusing on the main subjects, like mathematics or Romanian, and getting high grades were more important than helping him to find his calling. “When I got in the first family, I was so happy because I felt like I was going to my real parents. But I immediately realised it was not the case and I started crying. My “new” parents took their time and explained to me what was going on and I eventually understood everything. Still, I would have liked to get some support to attend the arts high school. I really love to draw and I think I’ve got talent, but no one has encouraged me”, confesses the young man.
After eight years, Andrei moved to another family where he stayed for only one year because the foster carer had to retire. Now, the boy is one of the nearly 70,000 Romanian children and youth benefiting from one form of social protection or another, and one of the adolescents in the residential care of the Vrancea General Directorate for Social Assistance and Child Protection. For the girls and boys at the centre, this is home. This is where they eat, sleep, wash and do their homework. This is where they live most of their teenage years, under the supervision of staff who try to make their life as close to normal as possible since these adolescents and young people have been and are deprived of the most precious thing to a child, parental love.
The transition from nine years of foster care to residential care can be painful and hard for a young man who no longer benefits from the support of a foster family. “When I left my foster family and came to the high school in town, everything seemed unfamiliar to me, everything was very big, and I started having second thoughts about how I would do in school. Some days, I would feel extremely lonely and in need of support, but I’d talk to pretty much no one and I’d just sit there and think, trying to snap out of it on my own”, says Andrei.
Education- a right and a means of integration for children and youth in residential care
Often, school fails to provide a proper environment to these adolescents and young people, many of whom are ridiculed and marginalised, so they end up hiding their past. “When I got to Focșani, my classmates didn’t know many things about me and they still don’t because I haven’t told them much. Only two of them know that I come from a placement centre”, remembers Andrei.
“Many teachers continue to use the term ‘children’s home’. There’s no such thing as “children’s home” anymore, it is just a label. Now, we are talking about adolescents and youth who benefit from social protection measures, basically because their biological family couldn’t raise them. Many of these children choose to inform only their class teacher about their social circumstances, and we respect their decision. School should play a more active role in reducing discrimination and marginalisation for these children since they already feel excluded because of their personal history and everyday interactions. When joining a social group, where the topic of family and friends comes up on a daily basis, these children need to be understood and accepted instead of isolated”, believes Luminița Agache, a psychologist working with the Vrancea Directorate for Social and Child Protection.
Why social inclusion of vulnerable adolescents matters
Adolescence is often described as a period of transition, full of risks but also opportunities. For vulnerable adolescents, those from poor rural families, Roma communities, and with disabilities, those risks are higher and the opportunities lower. Adolescents between the age of 10 and 18 are children, and they have rights to education, health care, social protection and participation. Yet, too often, these systems do not recognise and address the specificities of adolescents and as a result, they drop out of school and adopt unhealthy or risky life style.
This has a cost for adolescents, who can become marginalised, but also for society. According to a 2011, Eurofound study, the cost of the NEETs’ lack of participation in the labour market was estimated around 153 billion euros.
The opposite is also true: ensuring that adolescents are healthy, educated and protected is not only beneficial for themselves, but also for the whole society today and in the future.
As part of the partnership between Romania and UNICEF, a new programme focusing on vulnerable adolescents is being designed in partnership with central, county and local authorities as well as civil society. The programme follows a two-pronged strategy: ensuring that systems in health, education and social protection at the community level are adapted to the needs of adolescents and ensure their access to services to prevent serious risks; for those adolescents who are already in a vulnerable situation, developing new outreach, more specialised services in urban areas.
Going to Australia
The Wella-UNICEF project is part of these efforts. It includes mentoring by hairdressers from around the world travelling to training centres in Romania to share their hairdressing knowledge and skills with young people to help them build a career in this business.
“The course stretched over five months, with the mentors staying in Focșani for two weeks. It was fantastic! I learned a great deal from them, they were extremely patient. The biggest surprise came when one of the mentors suggested that I go to Australia for a year to upgrade my skills with the help of professionals in the field. I was extremely surprised and pleased at the same time. I can see my future in this journey to Australia, I have big hopes, I want to give my best and show the people there that they were right to make me this offer. Every night, I search the Internet for videos about hairstyling, what’s in, hip haircuts. I want to learn and have a bright future”, reports enthusiastically Andrei.
“For adolescents and young persons like Andrei, the Wella-UNICEF training course has boosted their self-confidence and self-esteem, which will eventually help them to find a job and their place in society. The fact that they have gotten to know these mentors in the project, people with other life concepts, has had a positive influence on them”, concludes says psychologist Luminița Agache the psychologist.
Adolescents and young people represent an asset, not a burden for society! Developing services and preventing adolescents and young people to become NEETs, giving them opportunities to develop and participate, ensuring that they have a acces to quality education, protection and health services in the communities where they live is an investment – not a cost. UNICEF, together with its partners, will continue its engagement to promote and protect the rights of adolescents and young people throughout the process and beyond.
By Dorian Ilie- March 2013
 Andrei name was changed to protect his identity.
 - Focsani is the capital city of Vrancea, a county in the North East of Romania – and one of the poorest counties in the country.